Futurist's Cheat Sheet: Human Augmentation

As long as there have been humans, there have been dreams of super humans. Eyeglasses started sharpening vision in the 1200s, pacemakers have been implanted to extend lifespans since the late 1950s, and the first strength-amplifying robotic exoskeletons shipped earlier this year. But those innovations are only the beginning. With advances in technology, the ability to vastly enhance human capabilities is right around the corner. Here is an overview of current efforts and their potential. (The "Futurist's Cheatsheet" series surveys technologies on the horizon: their promise, how likely they are, and when they might become part of our daily lives. This article is Part 1.)

What Is It?

Human augmentation is the ability to supplement human brains and bodies with technological improvements. The notion has been part of science fiction lore for decades. Ever hear a sports announcer say, “that guy has a cannon for an arm!” Well, what if he had an actual cannon for an arm? RoboCop, Mr. Gadget, Star Wars (what is Darth Vader but an augmented human?), and the Bourne Identity all offer visions of how human augmentation could one day be achieved. 

But it's already well underway. With the buzz around Google Glasses and Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius' speedy artificial legs, the notion of creating a better human body through machinery and computers is the subject of much theory and research these days. 

How It Works

There are many paths to human-machine augmentation: wearable technology such as Google Glasses, sensor implants, using DNA and chemical processes to enhance brain function and muscle functions, nanorobotics, performance enhancing surgery. Some theorists, notably Ray Kurzweil, believe the brain will be encoded as software someday, allowing it to be reprogrammed, enhanced by peripheral technology, tethered to a robotic body, and immortal. (Until the next backward-incompatible system update.)

Potential Impact

The idea is to enhance the human notion of “normal.” At the same time, human augmentation can be used to repair parts of the body, such as cochlear implants for the hard of hearing. Laser eye surgery is a good example of both reparative and enhancive human augmentation, as it could be used to help the sight of the visually impaired or enhance the vision of people with normal eyesight. Many professional athletes, such as baseball players, get laser surgery. 

Research firm Gartner notes that there will soon be a market for human augmentation to create “superhuman” characteristics, such as a suit that improves endurance or adds extra senses to the body. There have also been recent advances in implantable technology that can monitor health-related data, such as heart rate or insulin level. 

The Challenge

Miniaturization and advances in wireless technology enable many sensor-based technologies to be implanted into human bodies now. Moreover, the combination of computer and genetic technology could enable people to retrofit themselves with superhuman characteristics going forward. 

In the short term, researchers are working with the tools already available. Advances in mobile technology and wireless data transmission along with sensor enhancements are creating a new field in the biomedical industry. As scientists continue to crack the human genome, DNA augmentation will become increasingly powerful and controversial. One day, doctors may be able to completely rebuild body parts with computer and mechanical engineering and have them look and function just like normal flesh and bone.

In the long term, society will be challenged to cope with superior human beings. The notion of a mechanically-enhanced human has already entered the thoughts of lawmakers. Several U.S. states have passed laws banning employers requiring employees to implant computer chips in their bodies. As human enhancement becomes more common in the decades and centuries to come, there is a real danger of discrimination between the augmented versus the standard human.

When Will It Be Ready?

Depends on the type of capability you are looking for. Strength-enhancing exoskeleton suits have been sold to the military and rehab hospitals. Google Glasses should be released as a consumer product in 2013 or so. Implantable, sensor-based technologies are just starting to hit the market. This is one field to keep an eye on as technology and biology merge to create the true ubermench that Nietzsche surely knew was coming.

Further Information

Technology Review: In Pursuit of Human Augmentation

Wired: Be More Than You Can Be

Bloomberg: Advances in Human Augmentation: We Can Rebuild Him

Association for Computing Machinery's Augmented Human